January 27, 2016
SINGAPORE — In outlining proposed changes to Singapore’s political system in Parliament today, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged MPs to re-read a memorable speech by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew more than 30 years ago. In that speech in July 1984, the late Mr Lee and then-PM, outlined how a country’s mode of government must suit the needs of its people.
Here is an edited excerpt of his remarks:
[This was the debate on the creation of Non-Constituency MPs.]
“Members who have participated in the Second Reading debate all assume that our system of one-man-one-vote will succeed, will thrive, will endure, and that perhaps tinkering with it may be a necessary evil but may be unwise. I think it is useful if we see this in perspective.
First, there is no guarantee that one-man-one-vote can continue to work in Singapore and improve beyond a PAP Government, or perhaps beyond the tenure of office of those who are today in charge. How long has the system lasted? Since 1955, partially representative government - 29 years. What was the premise based on?
A British decision that decolonization must take place in an orderly way and they must have an elected legislature to which they could hand over authority. What is their system based on? How long has it lasted?
Let me sketch out very briefly how recent and how frail the system of one-man-one-vote is.
Britain, as you know, prides itself as being the earliest model of democracy - Westminster, the mother of Parliaments. It is useful to remember that nobody had a vote without property qualifications up till 1918, and then only men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. Women over 21 got the vote only from 1928. So if you take the Singapore system which is all men and women above 21, it has worked in Britain for only 56 years.
What worked before that? The landed gentry and property ownership. In 1832, with the rise of the industrial revolution and the wealthy middle class connected with manufacturing, there was the First Reform Act which redistributed some 143 seats from the worst of the rotten boroughs - they called it (it is a historical term) "rotten boroughs", you fix it, you buy your seat - to the larger manufacturing towns, including London and the counties.
In 1867, the Second Reform Act extended the vote to one million urban working men, one million for the first time, 1867. In 1872, there was a secret ballot for the first time, by the Ballot Act, just 112 years ago. In 1884, the Third Reform Act enfranchised agricultural labourers. They did not get the vote until 1884, the peasants, and the Act extended the electorate from 3 million to 5 million.
When I was a student of law in England in 1946-47, my lecturer in Constitutional Law was the leading expert of the time. He was the writer of the standard textbook called "Constitutional Law" by E.C.S. Wade. He took great pride in the British constitutional system, for it was based on so much unwritten law, on convention, on custom, on the monarchy, which gave it flexibility.
He compared Britain's then political stability with the constant turmoil, tribulation, tumbling governments of France in the Fourth Republic where coalitions of governments went through a revolving door every 3-4-5 months.
My fellow British students believed that it was Anglo-Saxon phlegm -the stoical, unexcitable nature and temperament of the British people that was the secret of success of the British democratic system. It did not work in France. It did not work in Germany. It did not work in Italy. It worked only in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; America - less well.
For the two-party system to work, the two main parties must share basic beliefs in the fundamentals of what the national interests are and what are the political variables over which they could contest.
When leaders of both parties, Conservatives and Labour, shared common values and beliefs because these leaders had, through a common educational system, mostly the elite British public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, come from similar social and economic backgrounds, it worked.
Now it is under very great stress and strain because the conditions have altered. And it is in recent times, in my active political lifetime, right up till 1964 with the first Labour government under Harold Wilson, there was Tweedledum and Tweedledee, from MacMillan to Alec Home, both from Oxford, to Hamid Wilson, Bradford Grammar School, Oxford.
Polarization set in. It was apparent by the third Wilson government, 1974-1976. It became deeper under the Callaghan government, from 1976 to 1979.
The Conservatives believe in a separate British nuclear deterrent. The Labour Party is committed to, and Mr Neil Kinnock is fervently a supporter of, unilateral nuclear disarmament and the removal of all American nuclear weapons from Britain in breach of their NATO commitments. So it is a fundamental attack on who defends or how Britain is defended.
The Conservative Party is committed to privatization of nationalized industries. They want to sell off Britoil, or British Oil, in the North Sea. British Airways is losing money, inefficient. The Labour Party has threatened to renationalize them and has deterred buyers.
The Conservatives want to abolish the large city councils like the London City Council and several of the major cities as wasteful, extravagant and replicative of government functions. Labour is commined to restoring them if the Conservatives abolish them.
So if Labour remains the alternative and looks like winning, the country heads for an impasse.
Sir, the US democracy. It is just over 200 years old. It is an endless fascination for all those who, like me, have to read about them because what they do affect our lives, not only what the President does but what the US Senate does, what the US House of Representatives does, with our textile quota, whether NOL ships can take freight or they are at a disadvantage because it is a State-owned company and therefore categorized together with the Communist shipping lines, and so on.
It is a miracle it has worked because there is a separation of powers, the President, the Executive, Congress, the Legislature, the Supreme Court presiding over them all. And in between are checks and balances, lobbies and pressure groups.
The Member for Kreta Ayer and I regularly read weekly reports from our man in Washington, a professional, whose job it is to keep people like us informed so that we know the political and legislative background against which the financial markets have to operate.
The conclusion of Dr Goh is that any country less rich, less robust, less talented than the United States would have collapsed a long time ago with their system of government and their infinite number of power groups and lobbies, and unending compromises for every piece of legislation and every resolution, a paralysis of government in every fourth year of a presidential election.
America's allies shudder each time a new President takes office and starts off on a new initiative. Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor, once told me, what a burden it was that just when they had educated President Carter, they got to start all over again educating President Reagan on the facts of international politics and international finance. And even if the President is with you, they find the Senate taking initiatives, passing a resolution to withdraw or reduce NATO troops in Europe unless they increase their defence expenditure.
The American system has been tried in the Philippines. They gave the Philippines independence in 1946. It failed. By 1972, it had already failed before President Marcos declared martial law. And whatever happens, it is unlikely that it will ever be reattempted in the Philippines in its unadulterated form.
The Philippines is not rich enough, not talented enough, not big enough, not robust enough, to pay the price of such a system.
Now, Sir, what about the other mature democracies? Take France. It has gone through five Republics since the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789. In between they had Emperors, Napoleon, Napoleon 11. The Third Republic, for those young enough not to remember went down with Marshal Petain in Vichy, France, in disgrace as collaborators of the Germans. De Gaulle went back with the liberating Free French forces, and the Fourth Republic was inaugurated. He withdrew and retired to his country home. By 1958, paralysis, chaos, pandemonium. They had lost the war in Indochina, Dien Bien Phu. They were in deep trouble in Algeria and the generals were in revolt.
De Gaulle was summoned from his retirement. He had a referendum and instituted strong, tough presidential rule with a Fifth Republic. It only lasted 26 years, 27 really, 1959, no proof that it will go on. There were considerable doubts whether after De Gaulle apres moi la deluge, as they say.
Germany and Japan, it is uncomfortable to mention the past, but you know they were not model democracies up to 1945.
Their democracies stemmed from Allied occupation of West Germany; Russian occupation of East Germany, now a people's democracy; and American Occupation of Japan. And it started in the 1950s when the Occupation forces handed over power. So it is only just over 30 years.
If you read the reports of what happens in Italy, changing governments every six months, please remember there was Mussolini. There was Marshal Badoglio who took over after Mussolini was overthrown. Then came Victor Emmanuel, again Allied occupation and this democratic system for just over 30 years.
Ask yourselves, let us be honest, let us not bluff ourselves, what are we? Anglo-Saxons with phlegmatic temperaments, not excitable?
We are Chinese or Chinese ethnic descent, Malays, Indians, Punjabis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans. Remember, for thousands of years, not just these countries but even the British, their societies were governed by tribal chiefs, kings, emperors, military commanders who made themselves kings and emperors and conquerors like the Romans.
It is just not part of our history to count heads to decide who is the leader. It is not part of either Chinese, Malay or Indian culture or tradition. Indeed, it is anathema to Chinese culture that the Emperor's mandate from heaven should depend on the counting of heads.
It depends on the chopping of heads and that mandate was exercised not through a rabble in a legislature but through a strictly quality-controlled Mandarinate that went through a series of Imperial examinations.
Sir, 29 years is all the practice that we have. Our attitudes, our practices, have been shaped by our history in these 29 years.
How we will progress depends on how we direct our social, economic and political policies, and including how Opposition leaders or Members accept the basic parameters of what Singapore is about - the independence and sovereignty of Singapore, its multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural character.
They are not for argument. We start arguing about that, we are tearing out our entrails. Any argument as to party differences must accept that these basic parameters cannot be changed.
Take Pakistan. It had a series of military rulers and had only one spell of constitutional government, in 1972-77, after East Pakistan was lost in a war with India and Bangladesh was established. The only elected President, Mr Bhuno, was hanged. And martial law was re-proclaimed.
In Sri Lanka, dismal succession of failures led them to change the name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Some Asian societies, they do that. They think that if you change the name, bad luck will follow the old name. And they changed the constitution from Parliamentary to presidential government. You know, after the riots it is in a parlous condition.
Let us look closer home. Let us take South-east Asia. The French have left lndoChina. They gave constitutions to Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. Now they are all people's republics. And the prospects of reasonable standards of life and political freedoms are grim.
The US left the Philippines with a US-model constitution. It has collapsed. The Philippines is now part-parliamentary, part-presidential. It is under serious economic and political stress.
The Dutch bequeathed Indonesia with independence and an inadequate administrative machinery and it ended up with a multi-party constitution.
In the first 10 years of Sukarno, one party rotated after another in a coalition. He decided on "guided democracy" for the next 10 years. It left the country prostrate and in debt.
After 18 years of Sukarno and the New Order, and they have just improved conditions, not completely recovered from the wreck of the first 20 years. It is a very hard climb back to law and order and steady economic development. Then, there are no doubts that whatever the difficulties, it is infinitely better than "guided democracy" under Sukarno. The problems are large but they are less serious than what the Western media or Amnesty International has made out or depicted.
Now, the British left Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei with different legacies. We have all managed after our own fashion and developed our own political forms.
The Singapore experience is very recent history. It has worked. Whether it will continue to work depends on getting able, honest and dedicated men to run the system, able to produce, able to achieve effective goals and make economic progress.
The foundations of this political superstructure - Houses of Parliament, one chamber, two chambers, Houses of Congress, House of Representatives, Senate - they are founded on the infrastructure, the foundations of a society, the state of economic, social and cultural development of a people.
You do not just transfer a Congress and a Constitution and give you a Speaker's Chair and a mace and you have got a Parliament.
It depends on a people's history - their traditions, their national cohesiveness or lack thereof their educational levels, their professional knowledge their industrial skills - whether they feel that they are a nation that they belong to each other, that they are prepared to fight for each other, work with each other, share one destiny.
The rest, the superstructure without this foundation, the infrastructure, are just so much bric-a-brac, like Lego bricks. When the European powers and the Americans transferred these superstructures modelled on their forms, like the Belgian to the Congo, they failed in the Third World.
The foundations were not there. Missing. In Africa, the loyalties are tribal.
Sir, I played a little part in shaping our Constitution. Earlier - in 1959 - I attended three Constitutional Conferences - 1956, 1957, 1958 - the 1959 Constitution.
In 1956, for eight weeks, under the leadership of the then Chief Minister Mr David Marshall, we had Sir Ivor Jennings, the leading British constitutional law expert of his generation, and for many years Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ceylon - and it was a renowned institution of excellence - and he was legal adviser to the delegation, and we became friends.
He taught me, amongst other things, the difference between political realities and constitutional theory. But I think my best teacher was not Sir lvor Jennings or the British Commonwealth experts. It was the Tunku (Abdul Rahman).
He tossed it to me in a chit-chat once. This was late in 1962 in his drawing room in the Residency. I looked at the beautiful leather-bound green cover volume Constitution, and there were some Arabic letters on it. So I said, "Tunku, what is this?"
He said it was given to him by President Ayub Khan. It was his now Constitution. I said that it looked splendid. I was looking at its inscription.
He said, "But you know, Kuan Yew, they make very good constitutions. They have many brilliant lawyers. With every new leader they have to make a new one."
Sir, I remember that. So in 1970, our Constitution was in a mess - part State Constitution, part Federal, part amendments after separation. Untidy. So I asked the British High Commissioner, Sir Arthur de La Mare, in 1970, I said, "You have got a lot of legal experts. I remember them from my Constitutional talks. They draft so many. They become experts. Polish it up for me."
And he did me a great service. They polished it up. It came back in April 1971. I had forgotten the date. This is just looked up. I thought perhaps I ought to tell the House how careful I am about fiddling around with constitutions. I looked it up.
The FCO had done a first-rate job. The Attorney-General pencilled in his comments. I read the draft through, and I paused. I paused for several months and read it again, and I reflected on the matter for several weeks more.
I decided that the experts just had no idea why we had made certain basic alterations, like when an MP leaves his party and crosses the Chamber he loses his seat and he re-contests an election.
He thought that was unusual and said, "Refer back to British practice." I said, "No, no. We stay put." I have paid an awful price for it in 1961. I have not forgotten that lesson.
And please do not forget that the price may yet be paid again. I may not be here, but Singapore and Singaporeans may have to pay for it if I allow a constitutional perfectionist to alter what he thought was a little unusual mote in the Singapore Constitution.
I decided to leave the Constitution as it is, just incorporate all the amendments, publish a clean copy. Never regretted it.
Sir, I learned my constitutional law not so much from my lecturers and my textbooks or my association with people like Sir Ivor Jennings.
They taught me the theory. I learned it in real life, hands-on experience, and from watching the Malaysian Constitution being amended, over 100 amendments, in just under three years since it was promulgated and it has gone through many more since, as Members will know.
I suggest we stick to the Singapore Constitution because it works and I am suggesting this minor amendment in the hope that it will work better.
Our history has shaped us, including the clownish stupidities and idiocies of people more ferocious than the Member for Anson. We have infinite patience. In the end, we track them down. We have great determination. We learnt it. There is no other way. Just contain yourself. Wait, sooner or later, the time will come when a person is thoroughly exposed and totally destroyed.
At the moment, I do not see any clear divide in political, social or economic policies that will bring about such a split. But again this is part of our history.
When the PAP won in 1959, it was a Party mainly of the Left and of the Chinese educated Left. When it won in 1963, it had shed its extremist Communist and Chinese chauvinist wing, and moved on to middle ground. It carried a fair size of that middle ground, Chinese educated, English educated and Malay educated.
In 1968, after he trauma of Separation, we carried more of that middle ground, Chinese and English-educated Chinese and most Indians. But I knew that we lost the Malay ground. The shock of Separation and the problems of adjustment and resettlement from Malay kampongs to HDB estates were a strain.
We regained that Malay ground in 1976, eight years later. By 1980, we had at least half the Malay ground and we had expanded our support amongst the English-educated and the Chinese-educated Chinese and isolated the pro-Communist and the chauvinist Chinese.
The Indians we know are equally divided between those who support the Government because they benefit from it and those who want an Opposition because it is part of Indian culture.
And those of us who look at the Gallery know. There are 6% Indians in Singapore. There are invariably 40% to 50% Indians in the public Gallery. They enjoy it. It is part of Indian culture. They want an Opposition.
Sir, our development depends as much on internal factors, what we do, whether we are able to develop open styles of government, free discussion without resorting to emotive appeals which threaten national unity, the gut issues.
And it also depends upon whether external threats become severe. Frankly, I do not see in the immediate future an alternative group of leaders emerging to pose an alternative Party that accepts these basic parameters and has sufficient middle ground support.
And the danger to Singapore, if the PAP were to be riven by factional splits, is real. It is the breadth of support and its organizational strength which is providing Singapore with our political stability. Mr (Takeo) Fukuda told me why he had to take a stand to try and clean up the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Without the LDP, the policies that have brought about the transformation of Japan would not have been possible.
Without the PAP there is no modern Singapore. It has been so. It is a fact of life.
From each of these experiences we have learned. We made amendments to the Party Constitution and instituted cadre membership thereby preventing our being captured in 1961.
So one-man-one-vote is a very difficult system to operate. And I warn both Members in this House and the people at large, that there is no reason to suppose that it will continue to function effectively, no reason, no justification, without honest, dedicated and able men willing to undertake this responsibility.
It is as good as the men who are prepared to run it. And in order that it can work, we have to use powers to suppress those differences which are so fundamental that if we bring them out, we tear ourselves apart, differences based on the interests of race, language, religion, culture.
They are what the Member complains of powers of detention without trial. He does not know why we locked up Shamsuddin Tung Tao Chang.
Let us not forget that the Constitution, the nature of Parliaments or Congresses, the political personalities and the Parties that form that government, their role is not self-aggrandizement. Their function is to serve the interests of the people, to ensure their survival and their well-being.
Rights and liberties of the Constitution are not meant to serve the interests of politicians or their conceit or conceits. At the end of every term of office of the government, every citizen of Singapore, when he goes to the vote, should ask himself this question which Mr Reagan posed to the American people when he was contesting against President Carter in 1980.
Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is your misery index higher or lower, rate of inflation plus rate of unemployment? Are your expectations of the future better?
If the Constitution which is the system, and the men who work it make your lives and that of your children better, you would be most unwise to listen to medicine men and bomoh politicians about the principles of democratic opposition and their desire for greater publicity and influence.
We are talking about life and death of peoples. I have seen a few actually disintegrate.
One last anecdote and perhaps anecdotal lessons are the ones best learned.
I went to Uganda in January 1964. It was a glorious, beautiful, superb capital, 6,000 feet high, like an English spring, sunshine, stonefaced Parliament House, Supreme Court, a Sikh Speaker of Parliament who entertained me.
You know what happened. (Milton) Obote chased the Kabaka Buganda out. He was here in Singapore. Idi Amin took over. He was in exile. ldi Amin brought the country down.
I was in Lusaka in 1979 talking to the new President of Uganda, Sir Jeffrey Ben Esa, QC (Queen’s Counsel). Mrs Malcolm Fraser said to me talking over tea, "Isn't he a very educated and cultured man?" I said, "Of course. He is a QC." There is only one of him left. Most of them have been killed by ldi Amin. You cannot put the country together again.
In 1981, I was in Melbourne and I met an Indian gentleman in the tea room. I asked him, "You from India?" He said, "No. Uganda." I said, "Uganda!" He said, "Yes, I am the High Commissioner in London." I said, "Ah." He said, "The Prime Minister asked me to return but I told him my children were settled in London. They were educated there. They have to continue their education. But I will serve him."
I said, "What has happened to the Sikh Speaker of Parliament?" He said, "Ah, he is in Darwin now. He is a magistrate. He is coming tomorrow night. Would you like to see him?" I was so overwhelmed with the memories of that stupendous spring day in Uganda.
I met Mrs Obote in Delhi at dinner last year in November and she recounted to me her travail as she went from house to house to escape Idi Amin and slipped into Kenya, and finally got to Dar-es-Salaam.
And she said "The people are different now. They do not listen to orders. They do not obey the law. They rob, they steal, they shoot. It is so different."
Singapore was different. Gangsters, secret society thugs, ran in elections and killed some of my supporters in Tanjong Pagar. I swore that when we came in here, we will be rid of them. We will be rid of them, and we have got rid of them.
You can bring them back very quickly. A few more medicine men selling kowyao and if bought by the people, we will go back in time. But it is different this time. You cannot go back to the attap hut and keep your chickens, dig your well, and plant some tapioca and bananas.
You will have to carry your water up to your 20th storey flat without electricity. So in voting for this amendment, remember: little cautious changes for what works is best kept working.”
Source: The Parliament of Singapore